Doctor Who: Scratchman - Review

January 31, 2019 | BBC Audio

Scratchman is a very unusual Doctor Who story. It’s been the stuff of legends for decades – a script for a movie version of Doctor Who, written by Fourth Doctor actor Tom Baker and one of his companion-actors, Ian Marter, in which the Doctor and his friends would encounter the ultimate evil: the Devil. Now, over four decades and nine Doctors later, with help from author James Goss, Tom Baker has finally brought Scratchman to the world as a novel, and subsequently as an audiobook. It’s Tom Baker, writing his own Doctor, and then reading it mostly in the Fourth Doctor’s first person, and in that voice that could ripen grapes.

It’s entirely possible this is the Doctor Who audiobook that has everything:
• Classic Doctor with a pair of fan-favourite companions – check.
• Blending of the Classic show’s derring-do and New Who emotional realism – check.
• Time Lords sitting in judgement of the Doctor – check.
• Deadly scarecrows who spread their scarecrowness by touch – check.
• At least one Classic villain with a speaking part, and cameos by a horde of others – check.
• The taxi-driver of the damned – check.
• The Doctor versus the Devil – check.

All of this and much more besides is blended into a roaring tale of adventure, bravery, running away, sticking together and winning through in the end. More than all this though, it has touches of such New Who emotional sweetness that it makes itself almost irresistible, even to grouchy listeners who don’t care that much for all the wild Fourth Doctor toing and froing and defeating of monsters. There’s a jigsaw-room in this story, which shows Sarah-Jane both her past and her future. There are cameos from the first three Doctors, all bickering as they always did when brought together, but with added Fourth Doctor judgment. And most of all – oh, most of all – there’s are a trio of epilogues, each of which is more perfect than the last. There’s a moment when the Fourth Doctor sees his own future and comes to terms with it. There’s a memo to listeners from the Fourth Doctor, which sounds almost like a love letter from Tom Baker himself. And there’s even an epilogue from someone who’s not the Doctor, but who will have you sniffing into your hankies, even if you’re not a die-hard fan of the show.

And of course, all this is read by Tom Baker. Now that’s both a great thing, and an exhausting thing. It’s great because it’s Tom Baker, and nearly nine hours of Tom Baker in your ears can never be a bad thing. His line readings are utterly unique, and would occur to no other human being alive. There are intakes of breath, there are ad-libs, there are ups and down and rolls into the most intense fruitiness, there are great soaring skyscapes of vocal crenellation which belong in the mouth of nobody else. Perversely, that’s what sometimes makes Scratchman a slightly exhausting listen. But you come to the end knowing nobody else would quite have been good enough; would have been quite so perfect; would have been, in a name, Tom Baker.

Scratchman’s an audiobook guaranteed to make most Who-fans weak at the knees and to make most non-fans do a web-search for the best of Tom Baker’s performances. It’s roaring and sprawling and gothic and dark, with a central opponent who’s half Lord of Darkness, half used car salesman, all totally workable on the TV screen of your imagination. It’s both epic and intimate, both universe-threatening and personal. It’s gorgeously studded with treats all along the way, and it’s quite capable of putting a little something in your eye, however slight your interest in Doctor Who as such might be when you set out.

You’re going to want to listen to this one. Take occasional breaks, or the headiness of Tom Baker’s performance will make you drunk like rich red wine, but always come back for more till the very end – like a Marvel movie, it’s worth it down to the very last syllable.

Doctor Who: Scratchman is out now on CD and download courtesy of BBC Audio, available from Amazon.co.uk and other leading retailers.

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